At the 2015 conference of the American Sociological Association, five eminent scholars of W. E. B. Du Bois came together to discuss his works and his contributions to sociology. This essay has been adapted from the ASA panel discussion.
A melodic steel drum echoes. Black women chant down Babylon. A funk infected with the skank of Lee Scratch Perry. “If you are a big big tree,” Bob Marley announces in rhythm, “Then we are a small axe.” In triumphant repeat, Marley coos “Ready to cut you down, to cut you down.” Recorded in a modest studio under a Jamaican sun in 1973, “Small Axe,” would appear on Marley’s album ‘Burnin’.
The song, performed in the key of Black freedom, gives musical trappings to an important truth. The small axe is the Black experience. Marginalized and oppressed peoples are the small axes. The big trees are topics and issues that animate what C. Wright Mills called our ‘sociological imagination’: inequality, incarceration, unemployment, urbanization and race relations.
The life and sociology of W.E.B. Du Bois amplify this critical perspective. Over the last decade, I have spent much time with Professor Du Bois’ work. In that time, one reflection of his has especially stayed with me. Reminiscing over eighty years of life, Du Bois makes a powerful confession in his autobiography. “From the Fall of 1894 to the Spring of 1910, for 16 years,” Du Bois intimates, “I was a teacher and student of social science.” After becoming Harvard University’s first Black PhD, Du Bois would then spend two years “at Wilberforce…a year and a half at the University of Pennsylvania; and for 13 years at Atlanta University in Georgia.” Du Bois “sought in these years to know my world and to teach youth the meaning and way of the world.”
In this reflection, we are given a glimpse of the Du Bois’ motivations and intentions. He confesses that his work and teaching were intended for the youth, an effort to gather and spread as much sincere and scholarly information on the experiences and realities of Black and Brown peoples. We are given not just his personal and professional trajectory, but also the sentiment that his work was explicitly for us: US sociologists, all of us being youths in light of Du Bois’ seniority; US Black and Brown folk, scholars and voices seeking a lighthouse in the wilderness of Cartesian-dominated white logics and methods; US social scientists, researchers braving the complicated and dynamic terrains of people science. For my part, I took the passage as directly aimed at me. I believed Du Bois to be confessing that he wrote the blueprint—The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study—for me.
Allow me to provide some background. My Du Bois journey began here, in Chicago, in 2005. A 1996 Nissan Altima carried my family and me from there to there in search of my PhD in sociology—traipsing from Philadelphia, through Pittsburgh, pass Cleveland and Youngstown, beyond Indianapolis and Gary. We arrived amidst a humid August evening, rolling up the ragged asphault of Lakeshore Drive towards Northwestern University’s Evanston headquarters.
Du Bois’s work and teaching were intended for the youth, an effort to gather and spread as much sincere and scholarly information on the experiences and realities of Black and Brown peoples
We were excited. My mom smiled as her brown eyes swallowed the beauty of Lake Michigan, a visual reprieve from the vast and flat plains of Middle America. I, too, was taken with the scene. I remember the lake, the green space, the smell of deep-dish pizza and separate black and white regions that went on for miles. As we made the left around the bin known as Sheridan Road, reflecting on Chicago I thought to myself “This was a spacious but thoroughly segregated city.”
After several years in the Windy City, I was struck by the chokehold Chicago, the university and the city, had on the discipline of sociology, especially urban sociology and ethnography. Convinced of Chicago’s peculiarity despite its prominence as the go-to-spot for sociological inquiry, I began to rethink Philadelphia—the city from where I had left to come to Chicago. My intellectual emancipation led to rediscovery. Enter Professor Du Bois.
Many years of reading, re-reading, writing and re-writing on The Philadelphia Negro (1899) have led to the conclusion that Du Bois and his work stand in stark contrast to the sometimes-wright-sometimes-very-racist-logics of ecology that emanate out of a urban sociological tradition began by Robert E. Park and Ernest Burgess at the University of Chicago in the early 20th Century. As I have shown in my own work, most notably in Black Citymakers: How The Philadelphia Negro Changed Urban America, Du Bois was deeply aware of what I call small axe sociology—the capacity of marginalized and oppressed peoples actions, attitudes, and histories to produce new knowledge and identify patterns and causes of inequality.
Du Bois knew that in order to understand human development and society, as is our intellectual mission, one must have full, sincere, and deep appreciation and study of the Black American experience. How did a population devastated by hundreds of years of brutalization, enslavement and racism manage to thrive and survive? In a lifelong quest to answer and animate this question, Du Bois’ work shows time and again that the Black American experience is sociologically rich and dynamic.
Despite providing much of sociology’s earliest and most insightful scholarship, Du Bois remains deeply under-taught, underappreciated, and underutilized. As shown by a whole host of scholars–including Ange Marie-Hancock, James Mc Kee, Aldon Morris, and Earl Wright II—over the course of the 20th Century Du Bois’ works, such as The Philadelphia Negro, would be denied and invisibilized in and by the very discipline and profession he spent years toiling to enhance and create.
Du Bois’ scholarship, while massive, is melded with a personal biography all too sobering and all too familiar. A promising young Black scholar, the first of his kind, attends the top schools and is still the last to be chosen and the last to be listen to and respected. Newly married, Du Bois and his first wife Nina arrived to Philadelphia in the autumn of 1896 with high hopes. Called to study the Black lifeworld of Philadelphia, Du Bois was careful and detailed in his quest. After speaking with nearly 5,000 Black residents and combing archives miles-high-and-miles-long, he researched and wrote The Philadelphia Negro in two years.
During those two years, he would witness his first child, a boy named Burghardt, die, succumbing to diphtheria. Yet, he endured.
Not provided an office or a legitimate academic title at the University of Pennsylvania, Du Bois pressed on. Sent packing unceremoniously after completing his masterwork and with little academic prospects, Du Bois forged ahead. Just a few years later, he would spend more than a decade establishing the first school of sociology at (Clark) Atlanta University. While there, he would supervise and author numerous projects on the experiences, politics, religion, and histories enmeshed in the Black American experience.
This he would do with less support, less sociological notoriety and before Park, St. Clair Drake and Horace Cayton, William Foote Whyte and all the other scholars that would later take interest in urban Black lifeworlds. Despite his abundant scholarship, Du Bois’ career would take yet another turn in 1910. As Du Bois later admits 1910 is quite the pivotal year:
“And so I changed from studying the Negro problem to propaganda—to letting people know just what the Negro problem meant and what colored people were suffering and were kept from doing. I was practically compelled to make this change because the people who were supporting Atlanta University were a little uneasy about the way in which I talked about the Negro problem and pressure began to be put upon the University to do without my services. I had begun to criticize Booker [T.] Washington, saying it wasn’t enough to teach Negroes trades. The Negroes had to have some voice in their government, they had to have protection in the courts and they had to have trained men to lead them. Well all of this together put such pressure upon Atlanta University that at last I resigned…They would have had to drop me if they wanted to keep the philanthropic gifts that were coming from rich people in the North. So I accepted an invitation to New York in 1910 to come help the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.”
Despite having a CV that included at least 5 books, over 100 articles (a conservative estimate), and a cadre of brilliant and well-trained students, Du Bois would be compelled to formally leave the academy in 1910. Fluent in more than 3 languages, Du Bois would be ignored, dismissed, and plagiarized by scholars of lesser talents. And so the story has gone until recent decades.
With all this in tow, a reasoned person should kindly ask: How do we come to terms with the lessons of Du Bois’ personal and professional experience? To which I respond: Intellectual Reparations! —accompanied by a swelling chorus comprised of Ntozake Shange’s colorfully complicated protagonists.
To deny these scholars is to deny our true role, place and responsibility in the science of society and human development. To deny them is to allow a pernicious and racist epistemology to continue to dictate who and what are considered bodies of knowledge
How do we repair this problematic disciplinary history? How do we make good on the errors of sociology as it relates to noting and citing the tremendous imports of Du Boisian sociology previously unacknowledged? Shouldn’t we go back through the work of our earliest writers and thinkers and make explicit reference to the implicit yet obvious contributions Du Bois’ work has made to areas like social movements, religion, urban sociology and politics etc.? Wouldn’t it be appropriate for the American Journal of Sociology to provide its long-overdue review of The Philadelphia Negro now? If you’re looking for reviewers, this brotha is available. As the phrase goes: Better late than not at all.
The truth of the matter is quite simple. While we have critical institutional interventions such as the Association of Black Sociologists and the American Sociological Association’s Minority Fellowship Program, we need more. We sociologists of all ilks and interests owe a great debt to scholars of color like Professor Du Bois—and here I would also add the mighty Anna Julia cooper, the plucky Ida B Wells-Barnett, the wise Zora Neale Hurston and the poignant James Baldwin, to name a few. To deny these scholars is to deny our true role, place and responsibility in the science of society and human development. To deny them is to allow a pernicious and racist epistemology to continue to dictate who and what are considered bodies of knowledge.
We must manifest a disciplinary and professional agenda that seeks to reconcile and repair the racial and intellectual injuries endured by Black and Brown scholars, from Du Bois to Horace Cayton to current sociologists of color subjected to the cynicism and dismissiveness similar to that which hovered Du Bois’ life and scholarship. Du Bois’ life and sociology reveal that understanding, conveying, and centering the Black experience does NOT limit our science. Rather, the intellectual and material category of ‘Black’ is a powerful tool for measuring and apprehending the social world.
I take stock in Du Bois’ personal and professional example not only because he thrived and survived in the post-Emancipation academy, but also because the patterns of mistreatment and diminishing of Black scholars and Black scholarship persists. There are still departments across our great discipline, for example, where students and professors are racial pioneers—the first of something in something somewhere where they are the token or marginal minority.
I am encouraged by the new sunshine that has been poured upon Du Bois’ work in recent years. For it means that despite all efforts to exclude marginalized and oppressed people, history can be a great filter. For instance, most people, if asked, likely have no clue the names of the sociology faculty at the University Pennsylvania while Du Bois was there. But some of US, and hopefully now more of US, know that Du Bois was there and what a missed opportunity not giving him a full appointment is and was—a disciplinary tragedy of the highest-order.
Unlike Du Bois, many scholars of color cannot and are not able to endure these same racial and intellectual injuries. Nor should they have to. When we reduce the voices we include, we do damage to our profession and many scholars and students die. Many scholars of color leave the discipline in the quiet of the night, unnoticed and easily forgotten. Others perish due to the intellectual, political, economic and physical tolls of being treated in ways similar to which Du Bois experienced. This reality is the true problem for the discipline in the 21st Century. For all of the colored scholars considering suicide, our rainbows are enough for they are patterned with the blood, sweat and tears of the elders. Thank you Professor William Edward Burghardt Du Bois. We are because you are.